Spring-Ford's 43-21 victory over Downingtown West in Friday's District 1-AAAA Tournament opener game was an emotional one for the Rams, who successfully returned to the scene of last year's season-ending district championship loss to Coatesville — Kottmeyer Stadium — and flipped the script.
For Rams senior Jake Leahy, it was oh-so-much more.
On the night of last Nov. 30, as the Rams exited their team bus back at school after the 59-28 defeat to the Red Raiders, Leahy was confronted with a loss far more devastating.
His older brother, Anthony, had died earlier in the evening at the age of 20 of a heroin overdose. And suddenly, losing a football game was put in harsh perspective.
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Leahy was pretty much a role player for the Rams last season, playing on special teams and seeing token time at defensive end and fullback for a squad that went 12-3 and won its first three District 1 Tournament games in school history.
Anthony, who had struggled with substance abuse issues, had been living in a halfway house but was making progress, according to his father James.
"We were all together for Thanksgiving and he looked the best he'd looked for the past few years,' James said.
Eight days later, however, James got the tragic news of Anthony's passing shortly after the district final kicked off — and fainted near the Rams sideline.
After being helped up by his sister, niece and nephew, James made the decision to wait until after the game to tell Jake.
"I felt so bad for him, because he had worked so hard,' the elder Leahy said. "It was the district championship, and I didn't want it to distract him.'
Leahy subsequently received a postgame text message from his father.
"He was like, ' When you get home, call me right away, it's a family emergency,'' Leahy recalled. "I didn't really think anything of it at first, but when I got off the bus, he was there with my grandfather (James Sr.) and told me the news. I didn't believe it at first, but then I saw the look on the face of my grandfather, and knew it was real. That will always stay with me.'
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Needless to say, the holiday season didn't afford much cheer for the Leahy family.
"It was devastating,' Jake said. "Christmas was coming up, and it wound up being the worst Christmas I ever had. The first couple weeks after the funeral, it was bad. And it got worse over time. Me and my dad were hit hard. I'm still messed up about it.'
Thankfully for Leahy (whose mother, Heather, lives in Florida) and his father, the outpouring they received from Spring-Ford and the football program made things easier.
"They were very supportive of our family,' James said. "The coaches were phenomenal. Coach (Chad) Brubaker really wants the best for the kids, and the support from the team was tremendous. A lot of players' families brought food over and were very comforting. They were there for us 24/7 every day.'
"My teammates have all been there for me,' Jake said, specifically mentioning the quartet of Gary Hopkins, Jarred Jones, Connor Murphy and Jack Haney.
Brubaker had run into similar situations of team members losing loved ones when he was an assistant at Wilson, and in his four years at the helm of Spring-Ford the squad has been hit with its share of tragic circumstances — including the death of Rams player Brian Clarke in 2012.
"We always want to win, but that's not really what this is all about,' Brubaker said. "What's important is how the kids on our team turn out as individuals, and they've taught me a lot of how resilient they are. I have a younger brother, and I can't imagine what Jake is going through at the age of 17 or 18.'
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On Aug. 21, Anthony's birthday, Leahy and his family held a memorial at nearby Victory Park.
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Leahy has dedicated his final season to his older brother, and over the past 11 weeks his play has been plenty purposeful on both sides of the ball.
"I know it's been difficult at times on Jake, but he's been playing better and better for us,' Brubaker said.
When Jones missed Spring-Ford's Week 5 showdown with Pottsgrove, Leahy stepped in an rushed for a career-best 96 yards.
Defensively, he has been an emerging force at linebacker and has totalled 60 tackles, second only to Robby Varner's team-high 62.
And he was recently honored by the Lower Perk Longhorns, who put Leahy on their Wall of Fame.
"When he puts his mind to it, he's capable of anything,' James said of his son. "He's shown a lot of resilience. I'm extremely proud of him; I can't tell him that enough.'
"I just want to give the whole team everything I have,' Leahy said. "I want to let everything out there; this is my last year of high school football.'
Friday's game may have been Leahy's most shining moment on the gridiron.
He spearheaded a bend-but-don't-break defensive effort with a couple of defining plays — a third quarter interception of Whippets' QB Nick Pagel and fourth quarter, fourth-down sack of Pagel.
He also ran for 35 yards and caught one pass for six yards as the No. 12 seed Rams (9-2) advanced to this weekend's district quarterfinal at No. 4 seed Neshaminy (10-1).
"It (Friday's game) was really emotional for me,' Leahy said.
And therapeutic, as Leahy attempts to cope with a tragic loss that resonates far beyond the football field.
Follow Darryl Grumling on Twitter at @MercSmokinD.